Flexible Working

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By Gill Sharp

We're told that the chance to work flexibly is seen as one of the biggest possible benefits by graduates seeking their first post - especially in the public and academic sectors. Indeed, flexible working is a term often bandied about by recruiters and employers, but very few have attempted to come up with a definition of what it actually means. In fact, in its various different guises, it's flourishing in universities and colleges throughout the land: education is particularly suited to different modes of working.

Part time work was espoused with fervour by the public sector, many years ago, largely, one suspects, to lure women back into the office, the hospital ward and, of course, the classroom. And, since this inception, it has grown until we have arrived at the current state of affairs, where all sorts and permutations of 'alternative work styles' are feasible.

What does this mean in reality i.e. what's available if the 9 - 5 commute has lost any appeal that it ever held? And, from an alternative point of view, what is available for those who need to add a spot of relevant experience to their CV before being able to access full time and permanent roles? Some of the options below could act as a springboard to this outcome.

Part-time Working

The most obvious choice for teaching fraternity and technicians, administrators, librarians et al is a part-time post. Cathy is on a permanent three day a week lecturing contract at one of the leafier suburban universities. If she wants other work at sporadic intervals, this is sometimes forthcoming from her current employers. If not, she has enough contacts in the profession to find freelance possibilities elsewhere. Similarly, one off opportunities may present themselves and she has enough free time to take these on - if she wishes. Sounds idyllic? Well, according to Cathy, it frequently is. Although, when people remark on how nice it must be to work for just over half the week, she points out that less time means less money, a point that many forget. Are there any other drawbacks? Resisting the temptation to cram too much work into those shortened hours is the main one. "You have to have very firm boundaries," she reports.

If salary combined with a change of scene is paramount, you can take two part time jobs. Julia works in learning support at two different universities. Her view of the pluses is pretty much the same as Phil's - see below - but with none of the minuses that he lists, though she occasionally feels slightly 'disconnected' from both her workplaces. "You can sometimes feel less than fully assimilated. As a part timer, there is a danger of being seen as an outsider," she warns. "And if you're not around at staff meetings for instance, your issues are sometimes ignored or you find that you have been allocated the jobs that no one else wants."

Associate Lecturer

Julia's experience is just the tip of the iceberg. Plenty of staff, such as Phil have several workplaces. He is an associate lecturer at two universities in London and another in the Home Counties. Although this often entails him scurrying from the wrong side of the capital, to the depths of Kent, he is clear about the plus points. "Variety in terms of students, teaching methods and subjects. Clear cut duties. A hint of a gentle challenge when one is dealing with a new institution or course. A lot of autonomy. And, best of all, little chance of getting entangled in internal politics." So no ambiguity there. What are the downsides?

"Apart from sometimes not knowing what's going on or turning up in a Monday to find your timetable's been changed, the most heart stopping moment comes every August with the arrival of a letter from the head of department. This may renew your contract, giving you gainful employment for another year, or tell you politely that your services are no longer required." This way of operating has obvious implications for job security too - no occupational pension, plus responsibility for own tax and National Insurance.

Of course, Associate Lecturer duties, even if they are based at just one college, have always been particularly appropriate for those who have another (often 'creative') identity beyond the gleaming spires, as, say, an artist , a designer, a writer, a thespian. However the trend is spreading across other vocational subjects too - sports science, health specialisms, and media studies, for instance.

Term Time Only

Term time only is a natural progression for those, especially admin staff, who hanker after a dedicated chunk of holiday, rather than small slices throughout the year. Indeed, it is one of the advantages of labouring in the groves of academe. Of course, there are those cynics who would contend that certain colleagues have been operating in this mode for years while being on a full time contract. Be that as it may, some people take this work mode to its natural extreme - both part time and term time only. Intense, but worth it for the time off and the opportunity to pursue other interests. What else does it involve? Good time management and self discipline seem to be the key components.

Job Share

Some jobs, particularly at more senior level, don't lend themselves particularly well to a part time post. Job share would then seem to be the most sensible option. If you choose to work in this way and the role is deemed suitable for two rather than one, the onus is not necessarily on you to seek out a suitable partner: the post can be advertised. Ditto if your partner ups and leaves, your job is normally secure and HR will set to work to find you a colleague. How does a job share pan out in practice? Problems can accrue if there is a lack of communication or one person is has a very different way of working practices.

The former can be taken care of by ensuring that there is always some handover time, be it face to face or by email. The latter requires adaptability - but isn't that what flexible working is all about? And maybe it's just like any other partnership - marriage springs to mind - when early discussion can prevent rumblings of discontent from escalating into something bigger. And, as Emma can testify, this work style can have unexpected benefits. "I used to have a chaotic desk and leave everything to the last minute. But when I started job sharing, my partner was very well organised which gave me a bit of a wake up call. Apart from which I didn't feel it was fair to leave her with all sorts of loose ends to tie up. So my time and task management improved rapidly."

Portfolio Working

All these different ways of earning a living may eventually cross the line from part timer or peripatetic Associate Lecturer to Portfolio Worker. These are people who have a whole host of jobs on an annual, monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. Envisage working as a freelance researcher one day, teaching one morning, taking on some writing in the afternoon and then doing some consultancy later in the week. It's not for the fainthearted or even those who like to know what's just round the corner. Juggling multiple deadlines occasionally means that some collide. And often what work is on offer can amount to a feast or a famine. The ability to live with uncertainty is a pre requisite...

Hopefully this has given you some food for thought and some new perspectives on the old routine. And if all else fails, you could entertain the idea of heading for foreign climes via either a career break or an exchange with a university beyond these islands. Now that really is taking flexible working to its ultimate conclusion.

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